Larry Ventis and the Study of Humor at William and Mary

“Laughter is the puffing away of emotion discarded by thought” -   Arthur Koestler

While most of us like to think we have a good sense of humor and enjoy the occasional joke, few of us have thought about the functional significance of humor, and its role in our society; that is until they enroll in Professor Larry Ventis’s Psychology of Humor class at William & Mary.

Relatively new on the list of advanced Psychology class offerings in the Psychology Department, Larry’s humor class examines humor from an academic perspective focusing specifically on cognitive, emotional, developmental, and social psychology research on humor, its theories, and applications. According to the course catalog, after taking this class “Students might never laugh again”.

 All joking aside, Larry’s early interest in humor research started about 40 years ago after reading Arthur Koestler’s book “The Act of Creation”. Although Koestler was rabidly anti-behaviorist, some of the language he used was quite compatible with behavioral psychology. In his book he regarded humor as the only complex cognitive stimulus that elicits a reflex-like physiological response; namely laughter, which in turn eliminates excess arousal. He also posited that humor always involved an element of apprehension or aggression.

 Although one might argue with these points, it led Larry to wonder whether humorous imagery might be useful in systematic desensitization; a procedure commonly used by clinical Psychologists for the treatment of phobias. Through this behavioral intervention, clients engage in muscle relaxation exercises as they imagine themselves experiencing progressively more threatening fear-invoking situations. Because each of these situations is associated with apprehension, Larry wondered whether the use of humor might allow clients to progress through these hierarchy items more comfortably.

 Soon after he became a faculty member at William & Mary, he had the opportunity to test his theory while working at the Campus Counseling Center with a young female client who had recently broken up with her boyfriend. Still sensitive about the break-up, she was nervous about attending a sorority banquet the next night where she would undoubtedly see her ex-boyfriend with his new girlfriend. Realizing that there was no time to work through standard systematic desensitization, Larry decided to use humor as part of the intervention. 

 He asked his client to imagine 5-6 scenes that would likely occur the next night; to imagine herself in her room getting dressed, showing up at the banquet, finding a seat, and finally to imagine her ex-boyfriend walk in the room wearing a tutu with his new date. As she chuckled, they imagined various other possible scenes that contained humorous endings. Upon her return the next week, the client reported that whenever she began to feel apprehensive during the banquet, she purposefully thought of the humorous scenarios, which in turn reduced her anxiety.

{{youtube:small:left|Nkd7zcvFQ5w, "The Laugh Factor" Excerpt}}Although it is possible that the woman could have comfortably made it through the evening without the humorous imagery, this was a powerful demonstration of the potential utility of humor in behavioral interventions Larry published these initial findings in the form of a case study in Behavior Therapy (Ventis, 1973).  Subsequently, he reported a controlled study that demonstrated that the use of humor in systematic desensitization was as effective at reducing phobias to spiders as traditional methods of desensitization that included training and muscle relation (Ventis, Higbee, & Murdock, 2001). This work soon caught the eye of the media and was featured in a show called The Laugh Factor for the Discovery Health Channel, in which he demonstrated the procedure with a College staff volunteer who had a phobia of spiders.  By the end of the episode, she was able to touch a tarantula with her bare hands.

 While focusing on the therapeutic role of humor, Larry realized that humor was also used in counter-therapeutic ways in advertising to make people more comfortable with dangerous products.  For example, the Joe Camel campaign, which ran for 10 years paired a humorous cartoon of a camel with the Camel cigarette brand. According to Larry’s findings, this humorous advertising campaign improved attitudes towards the brand relative to other brands. These findings, which were funded by the Virginia Tobacco Initiative in 2002, help to explain the success of this advertising campaign with adolescent males for whom it was targeted.

 More recently Larry has become interested in the role of humor in cognition. Because humor reminds us that there are multiple ways to look at a situation, it has been suggested that it sharpens our thinking.   Larry has indeed learned recently that intelligence is correlated with participants’ sense of humor but logical reasoning appears to be the key variable that accounts for this relationship. Larry plans to present these initial findings at the upcoming International Society for Humor Studies Conference (ISHS).

 Each year ISHS members convene for their annual meeting in various destinations across the globe, such as Poland, Wales, Israel, France, and Australia. While many of the Society's members are academics, the Society also includes professionals in a broad array of fields, such as counseling, management, nursing, journalism, and theater, who are interested in humor's role in business, entertainment, and health care.

Since 1979, Larry has attended and presented his research at the ISHS conference religiously, and of note, in 1999, he was a winner of the Society’s Joke-Telling Competition!

 This year Larry will be hosting the conference from July 2nd to July 6th in Williamsburg on our very own William & Mary campus!  The program will include paper sessions, posters, symposia, and workshops that address humor’s role in areas such as advertising, emotion, literature, culture, entertainment, and health. For more information about this event, check out the conference website. You do not have to be a humor scholar to register and enjoy the Conference.